Op-Ed: The justice system fails marginalized Texans when they need it most
By Betty Balli Torres, Executive Director of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation
‘No Justice, No Peace’. These four words often permeate protests about the disparate treatment of marginalized people in our criminal justice system. The grim statistics show that the criminal justice system has a disproportionately negative impact on vulnerable communities and people of color. The system fails entire communities––and at its worst, results in lives lost. Generations have been irreparably harmed due to these dismal failures.
The civil justice system has also failed these communities. America’s greatness is based on the principles of equality and justice but the promise of “justice for all” holds empty for hundreds of thousands of Texans and has for decades. The doors of the civil justice system are most often closed to those in dire need of its support. The courthouse, a beacon of our democracy, is inaccessible when one cannot afford a lawyer––a reality for many.
Legal aid programs and pro bono lawyers across Texas are doing everything they can to ensure that communities in need have access to the courthouse doors. Other allies, including judges, corporations, court administrators, technology companies and law students also toil to make the courts accessible, but these efforts have failed to produce wide open doors for everyone who seeks justice.
How can there be peace for persons being abused in their homes, removed from their homes or whose children may have special needs that aren’t being legally met? Legal aid organizations help more than 150,000 Texas families each year, but due to a lack of resources, only approximately 10% of the civil legal needs of eligible Texans are being met. How can there be peace for those 90% who are promised justice, but find none? How can there be peace for the rest of us knowing that our democracy has failed in its promise? For those most in need in our society, the tragic truth is that there is “No Justice, No Peace”.
We, the people, are all better if the civil justice system honors its promise of justice. There must be a commitment to massive reforms in the judicial system so that everyone shares in this essential piece of our democracy. Foundations, along with other influencers and decision makers, must commit to making significant strides and investments to ensure that everyone has equal access to our courts. ##
Betty Balli Torres is the executive director of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, the largest funding source for civil legal services for the poor in Texas. She has dedicated her professional career to public interest work serving as an advocate for civil legal services for vulnerable Texans and is the recipient of several awards for her commitment to this work.